Saturday, October 21, 2006

School for the blind gets a makeover

From the outside, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is a brick wall and iron-rod fencing that protects its 36-acre campus from the traffic at the busy intersection of Lamar Boulevard and 45th Street. Inside, it's a place where students come from across the state to live and learn to function on their own.

In the cooking classroom, students listen to the sound of their knives on the cutting board to help them slice fruit and cheese and feel their way around the cabinets to put supplies back in place. During a weekly reading session, about 15 elementary students take turns sharing poems and stories in Braille aloud.

Misty Schmidt, a fourth-grader at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, practices reading a story written in Braille under the watchful eye of teacher's aide Karen O'Quin.

Administrators plan to ask the Legislature for $68.5 million to create a town square atmosphere.
In the gym, high school cheerleaders stretch their arms out at their sides to form perfectly straight lines for a routine.

"They provide a lot of normal experiences that I wouldn't have otherwise gotten," said Brandy Wojcik, a 1999 graduate who's getting her teaching certification from the University of Texas at Austin.

As the school wraps up its 150th anniversary year, administrators say that plans to improve the outside of the campus will further its mission inside.

The school received $36.5 million from the state Legislature to replace the 90-year-old dorms with home-style residences where students can learn independent living skills.

Administrators also are asking for $68.5 million at the next legislative session. They want to create a town square atmosphere with a fine arts center, dining hall, swimming pool and activities center around an administrative and classroom building. The setup will cater to the school's mission of serving students 24 hours a day.

"Every waking moment on this campus is an opportunity to learn," Superintendent Phil Hatlen said. "It doesn't matter if it's the classroom or the dorm."

The Sixth Texas Legislature established the school in 1856 as the Blind Institute. By 1857, the school had three students.

This year, the school hosts about 150 of the state's 7,800 people younger than 22 who are eligible for special education services because of visual impairment, which includes blindness and low vision. Most live on campus and are bused home on weekends.

The school also provides resources for all the state's visually impaired students, such as summer camps, curriculum guides and teams that assist teachers at local schools.

William Daugherty, president of the Council of Schools for the Blind, said the Texas school is recognized nationally for its faculty and development of teaching strategies.

Many classes have teacher's aides, and none has more than seven students, so teachers can focus on each student's needs.

In a morning Braille class, teacher Jeri Cleveland sat at a table surrounded by three students. She guided 19-year-old beginning reader Calvin Scott's hand along a row of Braille, stopping to help him figure out words when he had trouble. Every once in a while, she would answer questions of two more advanced students.

At another table, a student worked one-on-one with a teacher's aide.

"When you're learning Braille, it's an individual thing," said Cleveland, who attended the school in the 1960s and has taught there for 15 years.

The school also provides resources such as speech-language therapists, social workers and a full-time residential staff that plans after-school activities and stays with students in the evenings.

These amenities, along with education and operating costs such as transportation, food and health services, break down to about $70,000 per student per year. That average includes the cost of the programs that serve all 7,800 students with visual impairments statewide, Hatlen said.

Parents and students say the extensive resources make a difference. Teresa Kashmerick and her family moved to Elgin so her daughter, who is hearing- and visually impaired, Natasha, could attend the school as a day student at age 6.

Kashmerick said that in her daughter's kindergarten class at a public school in Bellingham, Wash., she got special education services only once a week.

Since Natasha, now 12, has attended the blind school, Kashmerick said, she's noticed a huge improvement in the girl's communication skills.

"(Staff members) know how to get into her world instead of trying to make her fit into our world," Kashmerick said. "She knows that people are there to help her."

The nature of the student body has changed over the years. For the first century, the school's students were just blind or visually impaired. Today, administrators say, about 70 percenthave at least one other disability, such as deafness or autism.

Students must be referred to the blind school by their parents, teacher and public school if their needs are too great to be met within their local districts.

While they're on campus, the goal is to make students confident and self-sufficient, said Gloria Bennett, director of community resources. Teachers focus on helping students use other senses to compensate for their impaired sight.
Paulette Kamenitsa, who has taught at the school for 37 years, imports authentic instruments to help her fifth- and sixth-grade class learn about indigenous cultures. In a recent class, four students sat in a semicircle on the floor around her, passing around a rain stick, drum and rattles.

To help students with higher-level math, a tough subject for many students who are blind because of its abstract nature, Susan Osterhaus, who has taught at the school for 28 years, uses multisensory tools such as an audio graphing calculator and materials to create geometric shapes.

Hatlen said the school will continue to build upon the success it established over 150 years. He wants to add outreach efforts such as a team that travels the state to help local schools assess children with visual impairments and offer training on strategies for teaching math.

"We're really very proud of our past, and we're satisfied with our present," Hatlen said. "But we look for a future that will make this an even better school."


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